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The Drive-By Truckers’ ‘English Oceans’ Gets Stuck Between a Groove and a Rut

Drive-By Truckers
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: March 04, 2014
Label: ATO

Drive-By Truckers began as a great band that wrote good songs, and have turned into a good band that wants to write good songs. Destined to convert no one who stopped caring after co-frontman Jason Isbell left following 2006’s fraught A Blessing and a Curse, the Alabama crew have kept on truckin’, as gnarly and rotgut as the sympathetic grotesques in their songs. With a craft honed from years of punishing live shows, they reached a post-Isbell peak on 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark: Singer-guitarist-mythologist Patterson Hood learned tautness from singer-guitarist Mike Cooley, writing about dead fathers and deadbeat brothers and crystal meth dealers, and even if then-new bassist Shonna Tucker just kept up, her contributions gave the result the range of a major album, the kind even Spotify-age listeners will scavenge for material.

Good luck, though, persuading fans of 2003’s Decoration Day — the peak of the Isbell years — or devotees of those live shows. 2010’s The Big To-Do and 2011’s Go-Go Boots have their enthusiasts, but those records abetted the suspicion that the Truckers had settled into the Richard-Thompson-in-’85, knee-jerk-Pazz-&-Jop-nod period of their career. The tunes — and that’s what they were, with Boots‘ “Used to Be a Cop” one of the few oozing past five minutes — settled for a rolling boil; divided between ballads and obedient chuggers, they moved from strophe to strophe with the efficiency of a poet writing a sonnet a day. Excellent titles too: “The Fireplace Poker,” “Ray’s Automatic Weapon,” “The Fourth Night of My Drinking.” What the Truckers lost in imagination and verve, they gained in conceptual professionalism. These songs introduce their hooks, limn a scenario, and recede, like a student who raises a hand, is called on, and answers the question.

For a Drive-By Truckers album title, English Oceans signifies nothing — an unexpected adjective modifying a surprise noun (creeks were the only bodies of water mentioned on earlier Truckers albums). Speculation that they’re going the Arctic Monkeys route fades within seconds of hearing the rote one-two-three-four of “Shit Shots Count.” But two things distinguish this full-length from its predecessors: Mike Cooley, usually confined to a small handful of tracks per record, wrote half this one, and songs that should be 3:15 swell to 4:45. This wasn’t the point of wishing Cooley contributed more tunes like earlier highlights “Get Downtown” or “Self-Destructive Zones” — he’s grown mush-mouthed here. If “Made Up English Oceans” is, as one critic averred, a scathing right-wing putdown, I can’t hear it, and I wouldn’t hear it anyway, not when the average New York Times below-the-fold story about state-legislature malfeasance moves at a faster clip. (The Hood-sung “The Part of Him” is clearer, but no less reductive.)

That’s the problem with English Oceans: From the girl in “Till He’s Dead or Rises” who has “the fear of Jesus on her side” to the way in which “First Air of Autumn” is an identical twin to Brighters superior “Perfect Timing,” the album sounds like the kind of holding pattern release that causes fan-bleed. Blaming the perfunctory rhythms on the Shonna Tucker’s departure will get you nowhere; it’s closer to the truth to mourn the collapse of the band that recorded Brighter, much like the post-Bill Berry R.E.M. albums exploited the loss of their most ineluctable element for rebarbative sonic experiments. Admirers of Rosanne Cash’s recent The River and the Thread may have more patience with the studious Americana of “Hanging On,” all strummed guitars and perfect sickly/quickly rhymes. The rest of us will wait for the film when it wins first prize at Sundance.

But like the great band they once were, the Truckers remember: Even when they printed the lyrics in the liner notes, they knew their audience got off on how they sounded. With Isbell’s crucial third guitar part of their oral history, Hood and Cooley have equivocated for too many years, though they advance again on English Oceans‘s pair of epics (there’s the catch: the short tunes are too long, the long ones just right). “I really don’t care what’s inside you,” Hood growls on “Pauline Hawkins,” whose sepia drear dissolves into Silver Bullet Band boogie and Hold Steady bar-band bluster, and peaks with a corker of a solo. So does “Grand Canyon,” atoning for walloping ’80s drums.

Meticulous and ephemeral, English Oceans recalls Isbell’s 2013 critically acclaimed solo album Southeastern, a solid and stolid collection of sketches that didn’t turn into watercolors, of homilies whose guitar tunings were as private as prayers. For fans, another Drive-By Truckers album is its own reward, of course — a reminder that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. But not long ago, being alive and writing and playing songs for these guys meant breaking the vessels of form. Now, it means applying to be Eric Church’s band.